Sonia Destri Lie has placed her bets on dancers
from an unlikely place: the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Destri’s artful choreography allows the dancers of her Companhia Urbana de Dança to speak
their truth about the experience of being black
and poor in a country where race and class rule. At
turns raw, fluid and well crafted, her work is about
the lived experience of her dancers. This month
Destri will present ID: Entidades and Na Pista at
White Bird in Portland, Oregon, and BlackRock
Center for the Arts in Maryland.
Before Companhia Urbana de Dança, you
worked in ballet and contemporary dance. How
did you become immersed in hip hop?
When I left Brazil we didn’t have hip hop or urban
dance. I met Marvin A. Smith, an American teacher
and choreographer, in Germany. Every time I
passed his studio it was a lot of happiness. One
day he invited me to take his class. Oh my god,
heaven! No tension in my body.
How do you describe the form of hip hop you
When I started with the CUD dancers I was very
“Marvin.” The guys had their own vocabulary
that they copied from television; they knew some
tricks, they knew how to move. We’re talking
about many years ago: Michael Jackson, “Soul
Train,” Backstreet Boys. I started bringing American people to teach them the real thing. For a
few movements we knew we were as good as the
Americans. For others we decided to take that
part of the movement and work on it and sign our
name at the end. We stopped fighting and trying
to be something we are not, or to dance a dance
that doesn’t belong to us.
What kind of training do you offer your
They do what we call an “army cross-fit class.” It’s a
session with stretching and abdominals, and we mix
breakdance, capoeira and contemporary dance.
Once a week they run on the beach. I also decided
to start giving dance class again. I begin it with hip-
hop diagonals and we end with ballet.
Can you describe your process of creating new
works with the company?
Normally I have the idea and say, “I’m thinking
What does it mean to you that you are from
about this. What do you think?” I give exercises,
sometimes I bring books, sometimes I ask them to
write things, and I change the text and they read
to each other. Sometimes I ask them to create
choreography to the lines that they just read.
Brazil’s upper middle class and that you work
with dancers from the favelas?
This company changed my life. I had no idea
about the pain of so many people. You see people
dying everywhere here in Rio. So it’s not just
about dance. The company is a place where they
can have a voice. The American people have the
expression, “To use my white privilege to change
things.” That is what I do. I never thought that to
be white would be something good.
What is your vision for the company in 20
I want to get our own space and the sponsors
we need. I want my dancers to be running their
own young company. The guys are going to keep
doing the repertoire, learning, traveling, and I’m
going to be here to help. We’re going to have two
dance companies, one that belongs to the guys.
It’s going to be an intense 20 years. I don’t want
the feeling that I wasted my time. n
news | 10 MINUTES WITH...
The Brazilian choreographer
brings dancers from Rio’s
slums to the world.
BY STEPHANIE SCHERPF
Destri’s ID: Entidades